Ausmus finds managing 'pen is a delicate balance
First-year skipper learning to keep eye on big picture in his decision-making
CLEVELAND -- One big reason why so many catchers have transitioned into managing is that while the catcher is an everyday player, he knows the ins and outs of handling pitchers more than any other position player. More than any position player, he makes the walk toward the pitching mound, where he is part coach, part counselor, occasional psychiatrist.
Brad Ausmus made the walk from behind home plate toward the mound to talk with a pitcher more times than he can count over his 17-year Major League career. He never made the walk with the scrutiny he gets when he makes it now from the dugout as the manager of the Tigers.
Ausmus was criticized for putting too much trust in his American League Cy Young Award-winning starters when he let Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander talk their way into staying in games with trouble on base in the last few weeks. He was second-guessed last month for not sticking with Anibal Sanchez once a runner reached base in the ninth inning with a 1-0 lead, a game the Tigers eventually lost with a home run off Joe Nathan.
Detroit's manager was critiqued for his willingness to stick with Nathan during his "dead arm" phase, and Ausmus was questioned about his near daily use of Al Alburquerque in situational work for stretches at a time. He has had to balance the immediate need for veteran arms in tight situations with the long-term preservation of his core late-inning group.
Ausmus had to bid farewell to Bruce Rondon for the season after Tommy John surgery, and he has had to playing the waiting game with Joel Hanrahan in his recovery from the same procedure. He has had to bring along four different relievers who have made their Major League debuts, and he has had to watch lefty specialist Ian Krol become an everyday presence in his first full Major League season.
All in all, it has been a process.
"It's kind of set up as the season went on," Ausmus said of his bullpen, "which is what I was hoping would happen."
Statistically, the numbers are ugly, especially for a contender. Detroit's 4.77 bullpen ERA and .755 OPS allowed are no longer the highest in the Majors, passing the Astros, but barely.
The results are starting to improve, in no small part because the closer is. The Tigers are 35-3 when leading after seven innings, and their nine bullpen losses and eight blown saves are second- and third-lowest totals in the AL, respectively, albeit with at least three fewer games played than most teams.
The first-year manager, meanwhile, is learning.
"The one thing I've learned about the bullpen is that it seems to come and go in bunches," Ausmus said Sunday morning. "You have a bunch of games that are close and you end up using these guys that are the setup men a bunch of days in a row or a bunch of times over the course of a week. And then you have a bunch of games that aren't that close and end up using guys that are more the long men. And it's kind of a delicate balance between overusing them in each little spell."
Ausmus has talked bullpens with his predecessor, Jim Leyland, and he has seemingly learned the lesson Leyland learned early in his managerial career: Don't be afraid to lose a game.
"You know what the hardest part is? I think it's keeping my eye on the big picture," Ausmus said. "Like [Saturday] night, I wanted to bring Joba Chamberlain into the game in the eighth inning [for a fourth straight day], but I know I couldn't, because we need Joba Chamberlain the rest of the season. So that's to me the hardest part. You try to win the game, try to win the battle, but you have to win the war."
Those decisions aren't likely to get any easier as the schedule rolls along.
At the 72-game mark, Ausmus has one reliever who has appeared in more than half their games. Alburquerque has 37 appearances, one off the AL lead. Two others, Krol and Chamberlain, have appeared in 35 and 34 games, respectively, though Krol will miss the next couple of weeks with a dead arm. All are critical cogs to the Tigers' title hopes, whether or not the club makes a trade for bullpen depth.
Meanwhile, the same Tigers team that had six scheduled off-days and two postponements by May 1 has just five off-days after the All-Star break. With two makeup doubleheaders, Detroit will face a stretch of 24 games in 23 days, 15 of them on the road.
With the AL Central closer than expected, the battle and the war could soon merge.